Art of Animation

Japanese anime cross-currents at Williamstown exhibit

Japanese anime cross-currents at Williamstown exhibit
Written by Noah Roy

In a recent review of Japanese prints at the Clark I suggested that we are all waiting for an exhibition to explore the “descendants of Japanese ukiyo-e imagination, like manga comic forms leading to anime.” Well, here it is: “Repro Japan: Technologies of Popular Visual Culture.” It was just across town all this time at the Williams College Museum of Art.

And it’s wonderful: Kimono print design, individual cels from anime movies, photographs from cosplay performances, vintage ukiyo-e prints, and much more ferment in a tightly packed gallery with enough layers and associations to keep your head turning. While the title divines that technology underlies the propagation of these diverse forms, there is another deeper current: the human body. From figures depicted in 19th Century prints to fanciful fashion (in depiction and in fact) to types and archetypes seen in Japanese animation, there is the essence of humanity and character throughout. Sometimes it’s insightful, sometimes it amounts to style, or stylization, but it all pertains and comes back around.

These forms often adhere to what we call popular culture, infiltrating the deceptively mundane: dressing up, going to the movies, obsessing about how we look. Mass production underlies these objects, from fabrics to Noh theater wood printing blocks to photographs, as well as the application of printing and computer technologies. And while not always limited to Japan, the specific designs here take on endemic specificity.

The vintage kimonos speak for themselves, leading to more recent elaborate fashion objects made for cosplay events, where people take on roles and costumes with fantastic or futurist elements. Recent photographs, as well as a 1996 video by Moriko Mori, reveal both the costumes and the processes around these uses, which became well known in Japan in that decade. Cosplay takes on another significance in a 1990 fine art photograph by Yasumasa Morimura, where dress-up meets art history.

In parallel, the posturing and costuming common in the many ukiyo-e prints on view reveal not only the theater of 18th and 19th Century Japan but also an influence from these forms and decorations on anime, as seen in many original cel animations. Sometimes these are paired on the wall, as when an 1860 print of a Kabuki actor by Toyohara Kunichika is next to an anime cel from the 1994 OVA show “New Cutie Honey,” showing at least superficial resemblance.

The many fabric stencils in the show are fascinating, their intricate patterns in service to fabric designs, and to the people who wore them. There is even an ukiyo-e copy print of a woman admiring a piece of cloth with a design rather like one of the stencils. Resources like these take us to the roots of the crafts and the technology behind the final works, and seeing the rudiments of an anime cel, or a crude 18th Century printing plate made of wood, add emphasis and, honestly, revelation, which is not easy in an art show.

“Repro Japan” is about connections and cross-currents. If there is a flaw in all the ambitions and free flowing ideas, it is that the show isn’t big enough to do itself justice. Many of the influences and technological connections, convincing as they are intuitively, remain suggested and presumed. There are even some wonderful parallels between 19th century landscape photographs and ukiyo-e versions of similar scenes, which are insightful but also a bit unsupported. Likewise, some sculptural objects made with a 3-D digital printer are meant to correspond, I think, to netsuke carvings on view, but they end up mostly teasing a viewer.

Usually the divergences are beautifully additive: an album of vintage photographs of people in traditional wear, a PVC doll of an anime hero, video clips and cosplay snapshots, handpulled prints from centuries ago alongside digital printouts. If you have half an interest in any of this, you shouldn’t miss “Repro Japan.”

“Repro Japan: Technologies of Popular Visual Culture”

When: through March 19, 2022

Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown, Mass

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 10 am-5 pm

Admission: free

Info: https://artmuseum.williams.edu/repro-japan-technologies-of-popular-visual-culture/ or 413-597-2429


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Noah Roy

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